About 400 teachers across Hamilton’s public school board will be reassigned as part of a massive reorganization due to inaccurate enrollment projections and more students signing up for online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a report presented to Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees at Monday’s meeting, there are roughly 1,750 fewer students enrolled in classrooms than initially thought, based on enrollment projections from June.
On top of that, since classes resumed, about 800 students have decided to switch to remote learning, while just over 500 students are switching to in-person learning, which amounts to a net increase of 300 students in the virtual system.
The board has three transition points during this school year — October, January, and March.
Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the board, said keeping one metre of physical distance between students in classrooms is ‘non-negotiable’ as they work through the reorganization.
“The downside is that students have developed relationships with our educators, and we have over 400 teachers or educators being moved in this reorganization, which is approximately four to five times more than in any other fall that we’ve experienced.”
Several trustees acknowledged the difficulty that a reorganization poses to students and staff during Monday’s meeting.
Vice-chair Dawn Danko said she understands the concerns of parents and students, pointing to a petition that has more than 1,700 signatures.
“I wish we could just maintain our classes as they are,” said Danko. “But unfortunately, without additional funding from the ministry, it’s absolutely impossible.”
During a budget meeting last Thursday, trustees learned that the board is facing a $15.9 million revenue shortfall.
While expenditures are expected to decrease by $5.6 million, that still leaves the board with a current budget deficit of $10.3 million.
Figueiredo cautioned the board that this reorganization is being done in the hopes that more drastic steps won’t need to be taken during the next transition period in January.
“I too — after I’ve been speaking to teachers and parents last week and this weekend — wish we didn’t have to do this. If we had been funded on our projections, we would be in a different situation.”
Trustees unanimously approved two motions related to funding during Monday’s meeting, including one that reaffirmed their commitment to use up to $9 million in reserve funding to lower elementary class sizes and address equity needs at ‘high-priority’ schools, where the reorganization might be felt more acutely.
The second motion calls on the province to provide the board with more funding in three different ways:
- asking for a portion of the $50 million in federal funding from the Ministry of Education to respond to community spread of COVID-19, of which $35 million has already been spent at a number of other boards in the province that have experienced a surge in cases
- for the Ministry to fund the board’s Grants for Student Needs (GSN program) based on initial projections instead of Oct. 31 enrollment figures
- increased funding for sick and replacement costs related to COVID-19 (between Sept. 14 and Oct. 20, there have been 2,811 student absences and 346 staff absences related to either failing screening, or positive cases, or other isolation requests)
Board chair Alex Johnstone stressed the urgent need for more provincial support, saying that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for boards to “shoulder the pandemic.”
“It is wrong that school boards have been driven into debt and have been required to use our reserve funds in order to ensure safety and social distancing, and to continue to provide high-quality education by minimizing disruptions,” said Johnstone.
“This debt will be repaid by cuts to future programs, and it’s wrong that the health and safety of students and staff today comes at a cost of student programming tomorrow.”
As of Tuesday, there have been 30 positive COVID-19 cases in Hamilton public schools, including 21 students and nine staff, and one outbreak involving two staff members.
The board said there has been no transmission between students, or between students and staff.
As of Oct. 20, 4,368 students have filed for exemptions to the mandatory mask policy, although the board said many students who have an exemption are wearing a mask anyway.